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Boosting automation

Retiring workers, the skills gap and increasingly complex jobs call for a focus on laser automation

Every day from now until 2030, roughly 10,000 people in the United States will celebrate their 65th birthdays. Turning 65 is often associated with retiring, and plenty among

Automation comes in many forms, including loading and unloading systems, towers and conveyors, such as the one shown here.

those 10,000 who are skilled workers will leave their manufacturing and fabrication careers behind. In a perfect scenario, the tenured employees will be replaced with someone young, yet almost as skilled. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. A Deloitte survey shows that 60 percent of the time, people applying for positions in manufacturing are unqualified.

More specifically, the survey points to critical areas where workers lack skills. For example, 60 percent of candidates for manufacturing jobs lack math skills; 67 percent don’t have the technical training they need to succeed; 69 percent lack problem-solving abilities and a whopping 70 percent don’t have the necessary computer skills.

It’s often the case that employers know the pickings are slim, so they instead focus on finding individuals who want to work and will be good students as they’re trained on the job, which is a necessary investment for fabricators today.

Manufacturers have dealt with the skilled labor shortage, and finding solutions elsewhere, for years and one of the more common places to look is automation. For the past 40 years, automated laser technology has been used by manufacturers, but many of the systems of yesteryear weren’t tailor-made for individual shops, which means they had to be rearranged to fit specific applications. Fortunately, that’s no longer the situation and there are many automated components that be a custom fit for fabricators of all sizes.

Reasons to automate

Parts sorting keeps downstream operations flowing, but automation systems also serve as a way to reduce on-the-job injuries.

The skilled workers shortage is an obvious issue to overcome, but to make matters worse the jobs cutting parts have become more complex. Laser manufacturers have responded by producing lasers that can cut up to five times as many parts over the course of a shift than the lasers used years ago. So, what does this mean for the laser operator? Basically, they have to have the skills – and the stamina – to keep up with the machine.

If the operator can’t keep the pace, then the laser cutter has essentially been reduced to nothing more than a very expensive machine that is running at a fraction of its capabilities. There is proof to show this is happening. For example, one study focused on the different levels of automation and beam-on time in three scenarios.

In the first scenario, an operator loads and unloads the machine, leading to a beam-on time of 52 percent because there was simply too much dependency on the operator. Breaking down how this happens, we see that the operator must clear the table of cut parts and put on a new sheet. If the operator needs to sort the parts, that adds extra time. If the next cut list calls for a different material, the operator must hunt it down and make sure they have the right thickness and so on. The worker also needs breaks throughout the day. It all leads to less beam-on time.

There is also the injury variable, which all manufacturers are eager to avoid by adhering to an abundance of guidelines meant to keep workers safe. Take parts sorting as an example. When an operator is tasked with physically sorting parts, they are engaging in an activity that increases the potential for injury.

Older employees tend to know their way around injury and report fewer of them than their younger colleagues. However, when a worker aged 55 or older does get injured, they average 12 lost workdays, which is twice as many as workers in their early 20s. This is another good reason for adopting automated parts sorting solutions.

In the second scenario, the study investigates beam-on time with a machine equipped with loading and unloading capabilities. The average beam-on time was found to jump to 75 percent. The machine doesn’t need an operator to clear the table because it’s equipped with a material handling component that can load, offload and sort parts. This machine doesn’t smoke or need to use the restroom or call someone at home.

Watch the video to see Mazak Optonic’s K-Series automation, which is designed to maximize available floor space by utilizing a job shop’s vertical space.

The only perceived inefficiency of a machine that has automated loading and unloading capabilities is that when the cut list calls for a different type of material, the operator still needs to hunt it down and make changes to account for material types and thickness.

In a third scenario, a flexible manufacturing system (FMS) is introduced. The FMS has the loading and unloading capabilities, but it also includes a tower next to the cutting table with shelves full of different materials. Some might look at an FMS setup and think that it’s built for high-volume production, but that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, someone doing high-volume production is often focused on single types of materials.

With an FMS, the operator doesn’t have to hunt anything down – all the materials are positioned in the tower according to types and thicknesses, and the automated loader knows exactly where to go to get them.

The FMS is an unmanned operation that doesn’t rely on humans and is far more productive. One study found an FMS can realize a 92 percent beam-on time. Mazak Optonics, in fact, was the first manufacturer to introduce a FMS to laser cutting, giving users the ability to run different materials by having pallets storing different raw materials.

Automated components

Fabricators have different needs and there are plenty of options for building up an effective automation system. The following are some of the most common components in order of popularity.

  • Unload tables: Capable of holding as much as 7,000 lbs., unload tables are stationary components that can be equipped with descending features for holding higher stacks of material before being unloaded and sorted.
  • Carts: For fabricators running their laser unattended, carts can be utilized to keep the production going. For example, while one cart with finished parts is being unloaded, a second cart can be put in place to capture newly cut parts. Most carts can hold around 6,000 lbs. of material.
  • Conveyors: Fabricators have jumped on the conveyor train over the last couple of years because they are the quickest method for moving finished parts out of a system. Sometimes called nest conveyors, they usually have two or three stations with the conveyor portion extending 20 ft. to 30 ft. to a safe area where the parts can be sorted with great efficiency.
  • Parts sorting: For cut lists with an assortment of parts, automated parts sorting technology can offload them to the right bins or carts. This component has grown in popularity in recent years.

When the goal is to process material fast and efficiently, bringing in automated components like carts and conveyors should be part of the plan.

Intelligent functions

Watch the video to see how the automation offerings at Mazak are geared to offer the flexibility that its customers need.

It’s important to point out that while adopting automation assists fabricators with their skills gap issue, automation does not mean it is replacing jobs. It’s more closely associated with reallocating workers’ time so they can be part of the lean and efficient process. For example, intelligent setup functions have been put in place for ease of operation, reduced dependence on operators and to reduce setup times.

Several intelligent setup functions directly impact the inner components of the laser, including auto nozzle changing, auto nozzle cleaning, auto profiler calibration, focus detection, beam diameter control and profiler calibrations. Fabricators can save around a minute of setup time by utilizing intelligent setup functions.

At Mazak, a trailblazer in automation systems, collective wisdom says that automation is not a one-size-fits-all solution. There are factors that influence how solutions are adopted, such as floor space, ceiling height, overall cycle times and the way material needs flow within each individual shop. With an understanding of these limitations, production lines can be augmented with as many automated solutions that fit in the allotted floor space.

Mazak Optonics Corp.

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